Tuesday, June 22, 2021

proto-intro

[a proto-type version of the introduction to Shock and Awe - substantially different, more of a chronology of my evolution in ideas about glam, tracking successive waves of interest in the era)


Somewhere between “All You Need Is Love” and “Hot Love”, pop music begins for me. 

And it begins primarily on the television screen.

We had a radio in the house, but I don’t remember listening to it intently, on purpose, until much later in the Seventies.  Pop in the beginning was audiovisual – reaching me through the television, on kids shows, and above all on Top of the Pops. At once random and conscientiously balanced, the show’s cross-section of whatever was prospering commercially that week – chart entries and rising hits, climaxing with the best-selling song in the country—made for a motley parade during most of the show’s four decades of existence, a blend of bland middle-of-the-road, novelty singles, and merely professional pop pierced every so often by a burst of strange beauty. But during the early Seventies, UK pop tilted sharply to the absurd and over-ripe. Top of the Pops was populated by freaks and weirdos, loons and buffoons.  The show seemed garish, even though most households in the country would still have been watching in black-and-white. 

That’s what we had, a small black-and-white set. For reasons I can’t recall, our family went without a TV until I was about eight, which is to say, 1971. So glam is pretty much the first pop music I can remember distinctly, apart from the Beatles (who also seemed audiovisual – I thought Help! was a simple depiction of the Fab Four's lives). But I didn’t know glam was called "glam", that it was distinct type and area of pop music. This was simply what pop was, its (un)natural state.  Daft and dangerous, silly and scary all at once.   

One of my absolute earliest pop memories is being shaken by the sight-and-sound of Marc Bolan on Top of the Pops.  Almost traumatized. I’m not sure what the song was - “Children of the Revolution” maybe, or perhaps “Solid Gold Easy Action”—but it was something jagged and supersaturated, sensually ominous. But it was the look of Bolan as much as the noise of T.Rex that jolted me. That electric frizz of hair, the saturnine complexion and black eyes, the glitter-daubed cheeks, some kind of coat or jacket that appeared to be made of metal—Marc seemed like a warlord from outer space. An impression no doubt enhanced by one of TOTP’s budget-price video effects, like solarisation or howlround. My eyes were blown

Spearhead and spark for the glam explosion, Marc Bolan soon had company. The plastic insurrection of The Sweet.  Gary Glitter’s barbarian bubblegum. The roaring and stamping coarse joy of Slade.  Wizzard, a gaudy, grisly blare of horns and hair-dye.  Sparks’s falsetto hysteria and unsettling image, staining the memory of a generation of British pop kids. I can’t remember if I ever saw Roxy Music, or Alice Cooper, or Mott the Hoople, but I probably did. And right in the midst of it all, but set slightly apart, through his grace and musicality, Bowie – on his way to straddling the decade like The Beatles had the Sixties, a sustained presence in the charts of delicate strangeness. “Space Oddity”, perhaps his least characteristic record, rereleased in 1975, when it reached number 1, made the deepest impression on the child me.

And there was so many more, some of it pretty great, some of it ruddy awful, others still an undecidable alloy of both....  David Essex, Suzi Quatro, Hello, The Osmonds (part of the tumult for the duration of “Crazy Horses”), Alvin Stardust, Mud, Kenny, The Glitter Band ....  along with fellow-travellers like Cockney Rebel, Queen, Elton John....   A golden age of the pop single as pure, simple, and unexpectedly immortal as the Sixties ever were....   Not that pre-teens like myself assessed anything in those terms – comparatively, one decade against another. Older fans of pop and rock then generally thought they were living through a fallow period, a hiatus of decline and stagnation, would you believe?  Nowadays the glammy early 70s clearly stands as a golden age of the single alongside disco’s peak, the New Pop early Eighties, or that moment in the early 90s when the charts were over-run with hardcore rave and crossover house.  

When I got into music properly as a teenager – buying my first records, listening to the radio obsessively, soon reading the music papers – it was punk’s immediate aftermath: the late Seventies moment of  New Wave / postpunk and its various branches and estranged relatives like 2-Tone, Oi!, anarcho, and so forth.  A period of high seriousness, with enormous significance attributed to the entire field of music;  huge hope and emotion invested. The divisions within rock, the decisions you made as a fan in terms of where your allegiances lay, seemed of immense weight. Pop was not trivial; in fact, it wasn’t really pop. Groups thought more in terms of using pop as a vehicle, infiltrating the pop arena, making unpop ideas and attitudes and sounds reach as large an audience as possible without compromise. This was dangerous business, entering a zone where the danger was precisely of being rendered safe, consumable. Most groups who came out of punk, which was all the ones that mattered, were rather unsmiling sorts who approached the notion of entertainment itself with wary vigilance. Their goal was to speak of truths and realities outside showbiz and the mainstream. That applies whether we’re talking about Joy Division or The Specials, Gang of Four or The Jam, PiL or Dexy’s. Scowlers all. 

Another thing about coming to consciousness after punk was that you were led to believe that nothing of consequence had happened in between the Sixties and 1976 (and even the Sixties was largely to be disregarded, forgotten about). The first half of the Seventies was a virtual wasteland, you were taught. If prog rock and heavy ‘n’ hairy rock was the main erasure, the principal ungenres in this rewriting of recent history, glamnesia was another result (with the exception of the eternally relevant, ever-changing Bowie, seen for his recent Berlin-recorded albums as a New Wave forebear).  When I got into music seriously at the age of 15 or 16,  the present was all that counted, right now and the future it opened towards. And that’s a way of seeing things that flatters the narcissism of adolescence, encouraging its  impulses to desecrate heritage and denigrate elders. 

By the early Eighties, when I was making my first clumsy attempts to write about music, glam was actually a presence again in the culture, as a pervasive and formative influence on the New Pop groups, but I didn’t really appreciate then how much their sound and visuals (and vocals too) owed to Bowie and Roxy in particular—the androgyny and artifice, the posing and over-dressing, the luxury and largesse, the combination of nostalgia and futurism, a certain highly-strung romanticism. The Human League, Adam Ant, The Associates, Soft Cell, Tubeway Army, Simple Minds, Japan—they seemed like their own entities, self-fashioned. This was the start of something new, the launch of the Eighties rather than a flashback to the early 70s. The widespread use of synthesisers helped to confirm the “new” in New Pop. 

At that time just about the only overt nod to glam came from Goth pioneers Bauhaus, who not content with clangorously covering T. Rex’s “Telegram Sam”, also remade “Ziggy Stardust” and, scoring their first hit,  reenacted on Top of the Pops the legendarily homo-erotic TOTP performance by Bowie and The Spiders from Mars.  It seemed an odd, aberrant gesture at that time, a clumsy and embarrassingly deferential act of ancestor worship.  

Things moved so fast during postpunk and New Pop, there wasn’t time to think about history. So probably the first time I ever gave glam any conscious consideration was around 1985. By then the scene had slowed down, there was a feeling of disparateness and entropy in the air. People did start casting about looking for excitement and often they found it in the past. Mostly the Sixties, things like US garage punk and what people were starting to call freakbeat (basically mod music tripping out on LSD).  This was one obsession me and some of my friends got into: buying and taping garage compilations and reissues of mid-Sixties British groups like John’s Children, The Creation, and the Eyes.  

But another was glam, or more specifically, its lumpen, less-credible cousin: glitter.   What punkadelic garage and freakbeat shared with the glitter sound - despite the different levels of commercial gloss and production--was aggression, sonic attack, sharp hooks and big beats.  There was a thread connecting Count Five’s “Psychotic Reactions” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”,  Shadows of Knight’s “Oh Yeah” and The Sweet’s “Blockbuster” (it’s the same riff), between The Eyes’s “When The Night Falls” and Gary Glitter’s ““Rock and Roll, Part 2”.  A very direct line indeed (although I didn’t know this at the time) could be drawn between John’s Children’s “Desdemona” and T. Rex’s “Children of the Revolution”—Marc Bolan was in both groups, wrote both songs. 

In the mid-Eighties, there were no videocassette compilations of this moment in pop history available yet, let alone DVDs or YouTube footage.  No BBC repeats of vintage episodes of Top of the Pops.  The visual half of “audiovisual” was depleted: you were reliant on personal memories and the odd scrap of imagery--a single with a picture sleeve,  old pop annuals found in jumble sales and junk shops. So ironically, glam ‘n ‘glitter was a largely sonic infatuation: we thrilled to the apoplectic menace and brutally vacant intensity of  Cooper’s “Elected”, Sweet singles like “Ballrooom Blitz” and “Teenage Rampage”, Hello’s “Another School Day”,  but above all Gary Glitter’s singles, with their mesmerizing merger of primal and plastic.   

For a season or two, glam was a shared obsession among a group of friends who together produced a fanzine (or pop journal, as we preferred!) called Monitor.  At one point I think there was going to be a glam-dedicated issue (I still have pages of scrawled notes on The Sweet and Alice Cooper and Gary Glitter from that time). In the event the fruit of the fascination was a single brilliant essay by the editor Paul Oldfield, titled simply “Glitter”. And then for the final issue of the magazine,  there was the flexi-disc single “1972”, a deconstructed homage to “Rock and Roll, Pt 2” recorded by my friends under the alias The Wilson Sisters. Unexpectedly there was a rave review  in his Artforum column from  Greil Marcus, the most revered rock critic in the world, who said that “they--whoever they are—make what’s likely the least spooky year in rock history sound like the most”.  Don’t know if he was right about the record, but I know he’s dead wrong about the year.  

What had emerged in our collective heads – as a cerebral overlay to the sheer visceral impact of the singles and the faint childhood memories they stirred-- was an idea and ideal: the concept-myth of a time when pop was titanic, idolatrous, hysterical in both senses of the word....  a bygone time before before punk fatally demystified the process.  Self-preening perversity, enflamed artifice, a theater of  sensationalist gestures and  rebellion in a void.  But under the gloss, pulsed the raw real of primordial raunch.  For this was also a time when pop was still at base guitars-and-drums; when rock could pop and pop rocked

This ideal remained a touchstone for me but it’s not one that has flickered into view very often in the first two decades of writing professionally about pop.  I’d seen glimpses, or promises of glimpses. There was an obscure outfit called Last Few Days who made a blinding demo tape and talked a good game but lost themselves in the facelessness of acid house. There was World of Twist, operating at the crossroads of glam, Hawkwind, Northern Soul and rave, who played stupendously exciting shows and put out some great records but never made it.  Others glimpsed a resurgent glam spirit in Sigue Sigue Sputnik (I bought it too if only for the duration of “Love Missile F1-11”) and Def Leppard (ditto for “Pour Some Sugar”). Later on came Suede, Denim, Pulp – all great, but ultimately a little too knowing, too historically boned-up.  It was meta-pop that did manage to penetrate the charts but only as a maverick exception to the norm, not a tsunami force that changed the sound of the radio like Bolan, Bowie, Slade, Sweet did. 

In truth, the prevailing tide in music in the late Eighties and most of the Nineties was antiglam: neopsychedelic underground rock (Husker Du, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jnr) and its follow through with grunge, shoegaze,  lo-fi rock;  “faceless techno bollocks” and post-Madchester indie-rave; jam bands; the spectrum of metal from thrash to nu-metal. Even hip hop, back then, was pre-bling, relatively dressed-down in its street wear of hoodies, baggy pants, sneakers.  From alt-rock to rave, the look was scruffy and uniform, faces more often than not obscured by hair. The talk was collective, tribal, us-against-them (“them” being the mainstream, the industry, ordinary consumers). All the leading sounds of the Nineties defined themselves against pop. They  stood in opposition to the chart-dominant styles that preceded them, such as hair metal, Stock Aitken Waterman, boy bands. Hair metal was debased glam; hit factory pop was mundane, mechanistic glamour.  The genres and artists that mattered during this period demanded to be written about in a way that reflected their elevation of sound over vision. That was the music I wrote about and the way I wrote about it.  

It was really only towards the end of decade that I got interested in glam again, as a historical phenomenon and as a recurrent spirit or set of practices within pop music. One catalyst was writing Retromania.  The book touches upon but never fully addresses the fact that, as much our own time is a period of chronic recycling and looking-backwards that’s been turbo-boosted by the effects of the Internet and digital culture,  there was an earlier period in pop history that has claims to having been the first age of retromania. Revivalism, camp, nostalgia, irony, self-reflexivity were rife in the early Seventies, so much so that numerous articles were written in newspapers and music magazines railing against or perplexed by the phenomenon. I wrote about “revival simultaneity” as a syndrome of the 2000s, but during the Seventies waves of nostalgia for the 1920s, 1940s, 1950s, and by mid-decade, the 1960s jostled and overlapped. For rock culture, Fifties nostalgia was the most significant: glam and the rock’n’roll revival weren’t the same thing but they intersected.   

The conclusion that I didn’t draw explicitly in the book but now seems obvious is that, stirring as early as 1968 but really taking off from 1971 onwards, pop music invents postmodernism, all by itself, independently of its genesis within the art world (and in the early Seventies, “postmodern” as a term barely existed outside the rarified milieu of architectural theory).  The postmodern sensibility, along with many of its techniques, emerge in pop, thanks to its own intrinsic tendency to fold back self-reflexively on its own history, for reasons of nostalgia, but also through an innate impulse to make fun of itself, through parody and caricature.  True, pop and rock  make a cult of the new, are driven forward by a thirst for  sonic surprises; bands and producers reach for the futuristic and unfamiliar as much for commercially competitive imperatives as for any ideology of modernism or self-image as innovator geniuses. But there is an equally strong countervailing tendency within pop to hark back, to glorify and reenact pop’s own youth and the virgin exhilaration of emergence. 

The other thing that piqued a renewed interest in glam was the ascendancy in the pop mainstream of what could be called glam’s third wave: Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Ke$ha, Beyonce, and others.  (Third, because the second glammy upsurge was the early Eighties of New Pop, New Romanticism, etc, when pop was not only postmodernist in practice but had the term and the theory at its disposal too.) In the late 2000s, glam rock’s themes and techniques, obsessions and excesses came back to the forefront of pop:  theatricality and spectacle, shock and outrage, gender-bending and multiple personae. Some, like Gaga and Ke$ha talked explicitly about the inspiration they drew from the glam era; others seemed to have assimilated the ideas indirectly. 

What was also redolent of glam was a self-reflexive circularity about these new stars, whose main subject was stardom itself: fame and all its attendant trappings of luxury, decadence, delusion, inner emptiness, and psychotic breakdown.  These were hallmarks of  1970s glam rock, but it’s likely the prime source is from a different and more recent area of music: hip hop, performers from Puff Daddy to Eminem to Drake. Indeed, there’s an argument for saying that since the rise of bling in the late 1990s, rap simply is black glam. 

A final factor, the least motivating for me, is a growing cult of the original era’s lesser-known glam’n’glitter artists. This came about because record-collectors and dealers, having exhausted the seams of Sixties garage, 70s punk, and postpunk DIY, desperately craved a new source of basic hard rock. They found it in what’s been dubbed “junkshop glam’ – commercial in aspiration but commercially unsuccessful in actuality. Slades who never got paid; Sweets that went uneaten; Glitter that went down the shitter. Augmented by a quantity of  failed follow-up singles by one hit wonders, and various Euro copyists of the UK stomp sound, this does amount to a fairly vast heap of forgotten music, mostly dreck in my opinion (what’s worse than pop than went phut?) but with occasional diamonds in the dunghill.  

But really, it’s the mainstream resurgence of glam ideas and themes –  not actual glam sounds or beats, since Gaga, Ke$ha and the rest make fully contemporary club-oriented electronic pop– that interests me. The upsurge feels timely and revelatory.  It tells us something about the times we live in.

For all its compelling characters, legendary exploits, outsize gestures and oh-so-many marvelous records, glam was a movement rooted in disillusionment. It was a retreat from the political and collective hopes of the Sixties into a fantasy trip of individualized escape through fame.  

The essence of glam is disillusion and illusion: the relapse of rock into showbiz. 

In his many writings about the concept of utopia, the Marxist scholar Ernst Bloch celebrated “the principle of hope” that he found animating countless works of art and literature that are not overtly revolutionary or even political;  an utopian spirit he also saw shining forth in all kind of everyday acts and interactions.    Underpinning glam, though, is what could be fairly termed a principle of hopelessness. Or at least, it’s based in the privatization of hope: I can make it out of this place if I dream harder enough.

I write this book then as a conflicted fan – dazzled by the sights and sounds, troubled by the implications.

I’ve long thought – probably since I first began formulating ideas about music, which would have been the Monitor years—that pop and rock are fundamentally irrational. Well, all music is: its effects on us  bypass the faculties of reason and, at the extreme, sanity. It is fundamentally immoderate. Music can be harnessed for various ends, which might be more or less reasonable (as a vehicle for ideologies, beliefs). It can be deployed for individual purposes by those gifted with its magic (although the motives – self-glorification, attention, catharsis, etc—are equally irrational).  Critics and commentators can reason about music, about its cultural context and its social repercussions; they can say things that make sense, that are more or less accurate or persuasive. But at heart and at base, music, even at its gentlest, is a kind of violence: it is an involuntary alternation of the listener’s mood, it incites or quells energy through intoxication, subjugation, force.    

This irrationality applies as much to other, retinal side of the audiovisual hybrid that is pop. Pop is about fascination and charisma, words whose original connotations were religious and mystical. Glamour itself bears an etymological charge of magic and dark enchantment. Pop is the realm of fantasy and fanaticism, allure and awe.  The rational, pragmatic, sensibly disenchanted side of my mind doesn’t believe in things like magic. But I know they are real, as forces in the world; there are industries based around the manipulation and mass-production of intangible qualities of personal magnetism,   aura, presence. Many of the musicians in this book subscribed to the notion of magic. And now and then, despite being non-superstitious, I’ve glimpsed it to, in performers close-up but also in real life.  

Fame is one of the most potent example of magical thinking in our culture, a seductive and insidious fantasy-solution to whatever problems and limitations you have, whether rooted in personal deficiency or social handicaps. Fame is the mirage of a wholeness and prestige reached through glory and attention; an imagined incandescence of the self, ablaze in the gaze of the entire world; immortality achieved through ubiquity. As much as gender-fluidity or dandy flamboyance or camp theatricality, this religious belief in fame as salvation, an attainable heaven-on-earth, is at the heart of glam. 


pro-theatricality

  ... or at least, if not endorsing / encouraging, then at least accepting the existence and inevitability of theatricality as a social mech...